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Southeast of the Anacostia River

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While the boundaries of the District of Columbia were under consideration, Thomas Jefferson suggested that a substantial area on the eastern shore of what the English settlers called the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River be included in the District of Columbia for reasons of military security. Jefferson was responsible for reviving and including the original Indian name Anacostia for the name of the river, as it appeared on early engraved maps of the city. Anacostia is the Latinized version of the Indian village Nacochtanke (meaning a town of traders), which appeared on John Smith's 1612 map of the region. Today it is used generically to refer to the southeast segment of the city east of the river.

As with all outlying areas of the city, Anacostia developed haltingly, but nonetheless, due to its proximity to the Navy Yard (see CN45, p. 264), it has the distinction of being Washington's first suburb. Pierre Charles L'Enfant had determined that the best harbors were along the northern shore of the river and planned major military installations there. This development became a significant factor in Anacostia's development, as the Navy Yard Bridge at 11th Street SE, erected in wood early in the nineteenth century, connected Anacostia directly to the most important industrial installation in the city. The bridge was burned during the British invasion of Washington in August 1814, not to be replaced until 1846. Three years later the community was large enough to warrant a post office at the foot of the bridge. In 1853 the government purchased a large tract of land in Anacostia for the Government Hospital for the Insane at the urging of social reformer Dorothea Dix (see SE06). Renamed Saint Elizabeths in 1916, it was designed by Thomas U. Walter to be a model hospital set within spacious grounds laid out along picturesque landscape principles, although its elevated site already provided many natural advantages.

As the sections of the city east of the Anacostia River developed later than other areas, the intact contiguous ground of several Civil War forts now serves as a series of interconnected public parks. Most of the forts in the southeast sector were located on strategic high commanding positions and still retain much of their perimeter walls. Fort Stanton, off Morris Road SE, was built on a ridge 279.7 feet above the Potomac and retains some well-preserved rifle pits in the sides of its parapet walls. This continuous green chain winds through numerous neighborhoods laid out by developers with their own widely varying street patterns in response to the area's diverse landscape conditions. All of the shoreline is occupied by public parks or the extensive grounds of the Naval Research Laboratory at the Bolling Anacostia Tract. The high ground that runs through the area and the large unbuilt areas provide two natural amenities lacking in many parts of the city.

Streetcars did not reach Anacostia across the 11th Street Bridge until 1875, thirteen years later than other areas of the city. The wood bridge carrying Pennsylvania Avenue across the Anacostia River that had burned in 1845 was not replaced by an iron bridge until 1890. It was subsequently replaced in 1939 by the present John Philip Sousa Bridge ( SE01) designed by McKim, Mead and White. These lags in services were to be typical of Anacostia's later development. By the 1970s only 16 percent of the houses in the area southeast of the river had been built prior to 1940. Wartime housing needs and private and government-sponsored housing developments during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s still account for the majority of structures in the city's Southeast Quadrant.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee

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